Sheena Patterson of Oxford Garden Design investigates the legendary chrysanthemum

Do you want to be happy for the rest of your life? Then, according to an old Chinese philosopher you should grow chrysanthemums.

I’ve got a friend whose hobbies are photography and chrysanthemum growing and, yes, he’s at his happiest when photographing his mum’s.

I went to have a look at his flower collection last weekend, which is being lovingly prepared for the annual autumn village show. He always wins, and it’s not just because it’s judged by his friend the Oxford Mail’s Off with the Gloves columnist. Naturally, I am completely unbiased. Chrysanthemums are great plants to grow for autumn colour and have an interesting history, almost as colourful as the plants themselves.

First cultivated in China as a flowering herb, they were believed to have the power of life and are described in writings as early as the 15th century BC. Pottery from that time depicts the chrysanthemum much as we know it today.

Around the 8th century AD, the chrysanthemum appeared in Japan. The Japanese were so taken with this flower that they adopted a single flowered chrysanthemum as the crest and official seal of the Emperor. The Supreme Order of the chrysanthemum is Japan’s highest order of merit, and the “rising sun” on Japanese postage stamps is actually a chrysanthemum flower. Japan’s National Chrysanthemum Day is called the Festival of Happiness.

It’s hard to imagine that chrysanthemum shows were held in Japan before William the Conqueror set foot in Britain.

Rather surprisingly, given its popularity in Far Eastern counties, the chrysanthemum wasn’t introduced into the Western world until the 17th century. In 1753 Karl Linnaeus, the renowned Swedish botanist, combined the Greek words chrysos, meaning gold with anthemon, meaning flower.

These early chrysanthemums only flowered in the autumn. Growers in the 1960s discovered how they could get chrysanthemums to flower all year round, and now it is available in all seasons, in a range of types and colours, probably unrecognisable to the early growers.

There’s a lovely legend associated with the chrysanthemum, which originated in China. A girl asked the spirit how long her forthcoming marriage would last and was told they would remain together for as many years as there were petals on the flower she would wear on her wedding dress. She could only find one with 17 petals, so she divided each petal into two then four. This was the first chrysanthemum.

Since then the flower has been revered in the East as a symbol of purity and long life. I wonder if it should also be a symbol of female ingenuity!

Confucius once suggested they be used as an object of meditation and it’s said that a single petal of this celebrated flower placed at the bottom of a wine glass will encourage a long, healthy life. It doesn’t say if the wine glass should be full or empty so that will be the focus of my meditation this evening. Given that my glass is always half full, it’s a certainty I’ll be happy!

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